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How the NFL is trying to change its image after last year’s halftime controversy

The NFL will try to put last year’s controversy over the Super Bowl halftime show behind it when the league tests out its partnership with rap superstar Jay-Z on a high-profile stage on Sunday.

Jay-Z has booked Jennifer Lopez and Shakira as this year’s halftime headliners. And while the two are teasing their performance on social media with Instagram videos and photos, they’re not getting nearly the same scrutiny as last year’s artists, who were embroiled in the ongoing debate over the league’s treatment of former star quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

The two Latina singers say they want to bring Americans together during a deeply divided time by putting a spotlight on their community.

“It’s very important for us to convey a message of unity and also to show what a relevant force the Latin community is in this country,” Shakira said at a news conference in Miami on Thursday.

“There’s no doubt that the NFL is using some very smart diversity moves,” said Rinaldo Walcott, a professor at the University of Toronto who specializes in black pop culture and politics.

And Jay-Z might be the one to thank — or blame — for helping erase past controversy. 

Last year, superstar Rihanna and rapper Cardi B declined offers to perform at the Super Bowl halftime show to demonstrate their support for Kaepernick. The quarterback hasn’t played for the past three seasons after taking a knee during the U.S. national anthem to protest racial inequality and police brutality against African Americans.

Maroon 5, with front man Adam Levine, headlined last year’s halftime show in Atlanta after several other artists turned down the gig and spoke out against the NFL. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

That stand taken by Rihanna and Cardi B turned the normally coveted halftime gig into a political football. No one wanted to touch it.

Maroon 5 took the spot in what appeared to be a last-minute decision but cancelled the customary news conference in which the headline act usually participates before the big day. The rock band got less than stellar reviews for its performance.

A new deal

Soon after, the NFL announced a new deal: a partnership with Jay-Z’s entertainment conglomerate, Roc Nation.

The decision prompted outcry from many who called the rapper a sellout. His company, which includes a record label, a talent agency and concert promotion, is now advising the league on its entertainment productions. That includes the Super Bowl halftime show, and the decision to put J.Lo and Shakira centre stage when the San Francisco 49ers — Kaepernick’s old team — play the Kansas City Chiefs in Miami on Sunday.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and Jay Z announce their partnership at the Roc Nation offices in New York City in August 2019. (Kevin Mazur/Roc Nation/Getty Images)

The duo says there will be plenty of “heartfelt moments,” including a tribute to Kobe Bryant, the NBA legend who died in a helicopter crash last Sunday.

NFL adopts the cause Kap was fighting for

Roc Nation is also in charge of promoting the NFL’s philanthropic arm. Its Inspire Change campaign promotes the league’s non-profit work in underserved communities.

The philanthropic outreach seeks to improve areas such as criminal justice reform, education and police-community relations by offering grants to organizations and raising awareness.

This year, the focus of the overall campaign — ironically — is on police shootings and racial inequality: the same issues that compelled Kaepernick to kneel.

So while Kaepernick remains unsigned and effectively sidelined, Walcott says the NFL is trying to clean up its own image by capitalizing on the causes the quarterback was fighting for.

“I think that [the NFL] has to find a way to bring him back, if any of these moves like Inspire Change is going to have any real credibility, especially among black communities.” 

Jay-Z said in August that he had spoken to Kaepernick before announcing his company’s partnership with the NFL, but wouldn’t elaborate on the outcome of the conversation.

“I think we’re past kneeling,” he told reporters at the time. “I think it’s time for action.”

As J.Lo and Shakira prepare for their 12 minutes on stage, they say they’re proud of their participation in the NFL event. 

“The Super Bowl is a very American event,” said Shakira, who is managed by Roc Nation. “So it’s also going to be a reminder of the heritage of this country, which is one of diversity. And that’s what we will be celebrating.”

It’s been two years since the former NFL quarterback first began his protest of racial injustices in the United States, and Rob Pizzo takes you through his controversial path. 3:20



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